Proposed Minor Asks: How Does Technology Alter the Environment?

Eighty-nine faculty members from a variety of departments have banded together to propose a new sustainability minor, an “extension” of the energy minor introduced last year. The members make up FENS, the MIT Faculty Environmental Network for Sustainability, and their proposal would create an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate program in environment and sustainability.

“It is important to distinguish the undergraduate Environment and Sustainability Minor from the Energy Minor,” said Lawrence E. Susskind PhD ’73, an Urban Studies and Planning professor and coordinator of FENS. “While the Energy Minor focuses on the energy crisis and explores all types of solutions — many of which will probably assume doing more with fossil fuels — the Environment and Sustainability Minor will focus, I suspect, much more on renewable energy, strategies for environmental impacts of energy use.”

“There are many more aspects to sustainability other than energy,” said Aaron M. Thom ’11, president of Sustainability@MIT, an environmental student group working closely with FENS.

Creating the faculty of the energy and sustainability program will be a challenge since faculty members will need to come from other departments where they have other obligations. FENS must juggle existing faculty obligations with being able to provide students with adequate advising and a stable course selection to complete the program.

The specifics of the minor can still be changed, as the proposal still needs approval from the Institute. “There is a period between now and February for people to influence the details of the program; indeed, to get it approved, we are going to need a groundswell of student support and enthusiasm,” said Susskind.

Several initiatives are being taken to gauge student opinion and collect suggestions for the program. This week, surveys will be distributed to both the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, said Kathleen M. Araujo, a graduate student leader of Sustainability@MIT.

The surveys will be asking students where needs lie in terms of classes and extra-curriculars, which classes have been instrumental in shaping their understanding of sustainability, and what form of faculty or programmatic development could enhance learning outcomes. Sustainability@MIT will then bridge the gap between students and FENS. “A few of us at Sustainability@MIT have had many conversations with Larry about this,” said Araujo.

FENS also has an online forum for student discussion on the program at

Unlike the energy minor, the environmental and sustainability program will offer a graduate certificate, the equivalent of a graduate minor, in addition to the undergraduate minor. According to Susskind, this will have the benefit of allowing more course choices for both undergraduate and graduate students.

However, while enthusiasm for the program seems high among undergraduates, as illustrated by enrollment in sustainability related courses and membership in Sustainability@MIT, the same cannot be said for graduate students.

“Graduates are very narrow,” explained Susskind. “Something that requires looking out and across is very hard.” The November 13 FENS meeting will primarily be a discussion between the faculty and graduate students to get a better sense of what may be interesting to them.

According to Susskind, the interdepartmental FENS will allow for more cross-campus coordination. Students will have access to tools and techniques in different departments, which, especially at the graduate level, was not previously accessible. In addition, FENS will facilitate increased contact between students and faculty.

Susskind also argues that the program will provide a marketable degree in the job market, where sustainability is becoming an increasing concern.

The minor “won’t only be about ‘broadening their worldview,’” said Thom in an e-mail. “It will be about teaching [students] to encompass multiple different perspectives and different practicable methods of approaching problems or meeting the needs of society in ways that improve environmental quality and standards of living.”

According to the FENS website, the current proposal for the undergraduate minor allows students to choose three out of four interdisciplinary core subjects and a sequence of three subjects in one out of six to ten sub-specializations; the third requirement is a thesis or capstone project approved by the environment and sustainability advisory committee. The graduate certificate has similar course requirements with the additional requirement of a thesis or dissertation approved by an interdisciplinary faculty committee.

“In my forty years at MIT,” said Susskind, “this is the first time I have seen the faculty mobilized, in a group. We have to figure out how to simultaneously support our different department goals but also the interests of our students that may not follow department boundaries. I think we are just starting off on this; next there will be transportation, water… I think you will see other minors in the future.”